Orange is typically a hazard flag when we’re talking about snack foods, fast foods, and junk food. So much of the orange in that food universe is created using paprika, paprika oleoresin, or other red and reddish chili peppers.
The exception here is achiote — also known as annatto — harvested from a shrub with a native range flowing from Mexico into South America. It’s rich and intense orange is used commonly to color cheese, butter, and other foods. Its own subtle, nutty flavor lends itself to a range of spice pastes and mixtures around Latin America and the Caribbean.
Traditional achiote paste contains nightshade peppers, so we’re obviously staying away from that here. I hope to experiment more in that realm, but a few months ago I was inspired by a jar of annatto seeds and some bitter orange juice leftover from another dish. It was an obvious leap to wing sauce.
PLEASE NOTE: Annatto is reactive for a surprising number of people. If you’re not aware of having had problems with it in the past, approach this with eyes open.
- 4 cups cold water
- 1/4 cup Kosher salt (2 tablespoons if using regular salt)
- 1/4 cup white sugar
- 1/4 cup ume plum vinegar
- 2 tablespoon fresh garlic
- 1 tablespoon green pepper
- 1 tablespoon white pepper
- 2-3 pounds chicken wings
- 3/4 teaspoon ground annatto
- 1/4 teaspoon coriander
- 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano, preferably Mexican
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 3/4 teaspoon Indian long pepper
- 1 teaspoon Grains of Paradise
- 4 cloves garlic
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup bitter orange juice
- 1/4 cup honey
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 teaspoon orange zest
a handful of cilantro leaves, chopped, for serving
1Prepare the brine. If you’re new to brines, dissolving the salt and sugar can be a challenge in cold water. You either have to be patient or heat up 1 cup of water to make your solution. (One virtue of impatience is you can add the ground pepper while you’re at it, and the heat will release more deep pepper flavor.) Once the salt and sugar are dissolved add the other ingredients, then toss in a few ice cubes to reduce the temperature. But hold back the last couple of cups of water.
2For maximum brine efficiency choose a deep bottomed container—I prefer glass or stainless over plastic. Add the chicken, then the brine concentrate, finally adding enough water to cover the chicken. And do this last part gently so all of the chunky flavor bits don’t just float to the bottom. Put in the fridge for no more than 90 minutes.
3About 20 minutes before you pull the wings out of the brine, make the glaze. Everything goes in the same small saucepan, then bring to a boil.
4Set your oven to 425.
5Remove the wings from the brine and transfer them to a plate. (Do not dump the brine!) You don’t need to pat them dry, but give them a light shake as you transfer them. Leave them for about 5 minutes, then pour off the brine that has accumulated on the plate.
6Drain the brine through a fine metal strainer. You’ll capture close to a quarter cup of ginger and pepper—way too much flavor to waste. Snap the strainer against the rim of the bowl repeatedly to remove as much water as possible. (Depending on the capacity of your strainer you may need to repeat this procedure and empty the pepper/ginger on top of the chicken plate. Tip out any excess brine from the bowl and plate, then transfer the wings back to the bowl with the pepper and ginger. Mix with your hands so the spicing coats the outside of the wings. Transfer to a lightly oiled metal baking sheet.
7Bake for approximately half an hour, until the skin starts turning a golden brown. Keep an eye on the bottom of the wings around 20 minutes. How fast they cook will depend on your oven, your pan, and how close the wings are to each other, and they can blacken on the bottom before you know it. About two thirds of the way through the process flip the wings with a spatula. You’ll want a metal one with a good edge, as some of the wings will stick more than others, and you don’t want the skin peeling away from the meat until you’re ready to eat.
8Meanwhile, you’re cooking down the glaze to get the right consistency, and that means boiling furiously for somewhere in the neighborhood of a half an hour. Because you’re coating wings, you’ll want a glaze that approaches the viscosity of syrup. The danger zones are at the beginning and end of the process. At the beginning it’s likely to froth up, and possibly spill over onto your stovetop. If you’re not paying attention during the end game, it can zoom past caramelization and leave a nasty crust in your pan. You’ll know you’re approaching this latter point when the bubbles start to get suddenly larger. Turn down the heat and dip a spoon and watch the sheeting action as the glaze drips down the spoon. If you missed the precise consistency, you can always carefully add back a little water. And remember that viscosity will also vary by temperature.
9Remove wings from oven. While still hot remove to a bowl and toss with the glaze. Sprinkle with cilantro and serve from this bowl, or transfer to something a little more festive.